Forbidden Love – Deceased Wife’s Sister

May a Man Marry His Deceased Wife's SisterMartin Gatward, born in Hackney 1859, was the son of George Gatward and Susan Jefferies. In 1878, Martin married 20 year old local girl, Elizabeth Victoria August at St Mary-le-Bow. Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas August and Ann Jones. They had 5 years of marriage, bearing two children, George William, and Elizabeth Ann, before Elizabeth Victoria was struck down with the all too common wasting disease, Tuberculosis, dying at the tender age of 25. Martin no doubt took comfort and support from her family, in particular her younger sister, Ada August. This relationship developed and three years after the death of his first wife, Martin married his deceased wife’s younger sister Ada, with whom he had three further children, Alice, Ada, and Dorothy Ann.

No members of Ada’s family were listed as witnesses at the marriage, so it is not known if the marriage was with their blessing, but in the eyes of the law at the time, this was a forbidden and unlawful marriage! It is a matter of speculation if the marriage went ahead through ignorance of the law, deliberate deception, or collusion.

This marriage prohibition had derived from a doctrine of Canon Law whereby those who were connected by marriage were regarded as being related to each other in a way that made marriage between them improper. The Marriage Act 1835 hardened the law into an absolute prohibition (whilst, however, authorising any such marriages which had already taken place), so that such marriages could no longer take place in the United Kingdom and colonies, forcing those that could afford it, to marry abroad. For most of the nineteenth century, the question of whether a man should be able to marry the sister of his deceased wife engaged the English public in protracted and heated debate. However, it was to be nearly 50 years before the campaign for a change in the law was successful, despite the introduction of draft legislation in Parliament on many occasions. The ‘Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act 1907‘ removed the prohibition (although it allowed individual clergy, if they chose, to refuse to conduct marriages which would previously have been prohibited).

So while it was acceptable to marry a cousin (courtesy of Henry VIII who changed the law to marry his cousin Catherine Howard) it was not possible until 1907 to legally marry a deceased wife’s sister!